Breastfeeding and the Nestle Boycott



BellaOnline’s Breastfeeding Editor

Breastfeeding and the Nestle Boycott

Many breastfeeding advocates promote a boycott of Nestle products due to accusations of this company contributing to the death of infants in developing countries. I’ve heard snippets of this since I started nursing – being told by lactation consultants things like, “Well, our preference is that you don’t use formula at all, but if you do, don’t choose Nestle/Carnation, because their actions kill babies in Africa.” I never have used formula with either of my daughters and I had never fully delved into this to understand what it is all about.In looking into this the basic issue centers around Nestle’s approach towards developing nations as potential markets for infant formula products. There are a few reasons why infant formula in developing nations is an issue:

• There is often a lack of healthy water supply with which to mix the formula
• Most women/families can’t afford the cost of sufficient infant formula, and therefore water down available supplies or choose to use inappropriate alternatives (whole milk, corn syrup, etc.)
• Babies in developing nations especially need the immunity-related benefits of breastfeeding
• The delay in returned fertility due to breastfeeding is especially important to women in developing nations which may lack access to other birth control options

It is incredibly important because of these reasons that breastfeeding is successful for women in nations or reason where these things are true. But if new mothers get their hands on formula in the early days, via free samples for example, it can interfere with the establishment of breastfeeding and proper milk supply making the formula a necessity.

Now that’s bad enough in a country like the U.S., where there are least healthy formula use is available and affordable (at least through WIC or other aid if needed), and support and tools are realistically available to rebuild supply if desired. But when it is realistically not an option, due to the reasons stated above, it’s a huge problem.

According to Wikipedia, opponents of Nestle contend that Nestle has aggressively marketed formula in developing nations since the early 1970s, leading to what is now known as the World Health Organization (WHO)’s International Code of Marketing Breast-Milk Substitutes in 1981. The boycott effort began in 1977, was called on in 1984 when Nestle agreed to abide by the code, and reinstated in 1989 when at was alleged by the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) of actions still in violation – namely continuing to provide free and low-cost supplies of formula.

Today, Nestle claims to be in compliance with the code and opponents say they are lying. Without going to developing nations to see for oneself, one can only rely on the instances of he-said/she-said. Some say that regardless of what they are doing now, their aggressive actions in these countries in the past, and the clear results of those actions at the time are unredeemable. To some extent, the argument hinges on disagreements on interpretations of the code and whether Nestle’s current practices are in or outside the lines.

My personal instinct after reading both sides is that Nestle has a financial stake in breaking the code and claiming not to, while those promoting boycott have no real incentive to do so if they didn’t really believe in their claims. Certainly there is a role for infant formula in developing nations when health practitioners determine that it is necessary, and perhaps Nestle is making formula available in some appropriate way through health care channels.

But from reading Nestle’s own materials, it seems to me that they also desperately want to approach developing nations as a potential market in order to obtain those who *can* afford formula as customers. I get that, but given the high risk factors to most mothers and children, it just feels irresponsible for them to be there at all. It may be hard for American women who consider breastfeeding a choice to understand just how much it is an absolute necessity in developing nations and how even a little access to formula by women who can’t afford it or use it safely can disrupt the system. It just feels disingenuous for a product whose very existence relies on the failure of breastfeeding to claim to support it – how can it be anything but a way to promote their brand within the “rules?”

Some links of interest are below, including Nestle’s own site on this issue, so you can make up your own mind.

• Nestle’s Site on “Baby Milk Issue Facts”
• Baby Milk Action – an international site organizing the boycott
• Wikipedia site on the Nestle Boycott
• Full Text of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes in English (PDF)



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